"French Regency" : Non Mirabile Dictu

The exacting Dr. Megan Aldrich, my furniture tutor at Sotheby's Institute, despaired of the labeling of furniture after rulers' reigns. After all, the minute George II ascended the throne in 1727, there wasn't a complete overhaul of fashion with everyone throwing out their pad-footed chairs for ball-and-claw ones. However, after working in the trade for several years, I've found these labels useful as a shorthand as they tend to loosely coordinate with the change in styles from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassicism. Useful, that is, as long as people are still au fait with them....

the Billiards Room at Malmaison, circa 1790s, designed by Percier and Fontaine for Josephine is the defining example of Directoire style

You may remember that I was aghast upon coming across the phrase "French Regency" in Vanity Fair magazine and some have asked me to elaborate. Quite simply, there is no such thing. There is French Empire, corresponding to when Napoleon was crowned emperor of France, and there is English Regency, referring to the Prince Regent's interim rule while his father George III had an interlude of insanity. He then became George IV in 1820 until his death in 1830.

Moreover, what I discovered while researching RR was that the English called their own furniture from that period (1790-1820) "English Empire", much as we call ours "American Empire", until the late 1910s, when the usage of Regency as a style term was coined by the architect Sir Alfred Richardson. So to use the term "French Regency", implying the French were following the English, is absurd. After all, the French have made it a point of national pride to lead fashion since the days of the sun king himself, Louis XIV.

Empire, Regency, po-tay-toes - po-tah-toes - what does it all mean?

In a nutshell, they both refer to a late phase of neoclassicism which was more archeologically correct in terms of replicating actual furniture from antiquity than the preceding phases of neoclassicism - i.e., Louis XVI, "Adam" or "Sheraton" style - which grafted Classical ornament onto existing European forms. To make huge generalizations, Empire and Regency are more bold and massive with complicated curtains while Louis XVI, et al, is more delicate and refined. Directoire - the period of Josephine's Malmaison - is transitional and, like Madeleine C., my fave.

Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette's bedroom in the Petit Trianon, circa 1770s


view of Madame Recamier's bedroom, circa 1798


Josephine's bedroom at Fontainbleau, 1808

English Neoclassicism -

1st Phase - Adam Style

The Etruscan Room at Osterley Park by Robert Adam, 1761

designs for furniture by Robert Adam, circa 1775

Early Regency - 1790s

Living Room cum Library at Bromley Hill - note the casual arrangement of furniture left in the middle of the room

Late Regency

The Prince Regent's tour de force, Brighton Pavilion, in its final phase of decoration, circa 1820

design for an armchair by Thomas Hope, 1807